Recently, I was walking at the Bolsa Chica wetlands. A group of photographers on the bridge had their attention fixed not on the clusters of birds gathering to fish, but on a thin line of white smoke rising about a half-mile in the distance, near the Brightwater trail. It appeared to be a fire, so I walked out to see what was going on.
By the time I arrived, eight or so firefighters were on scene, a few dragging a water hose down from the upper trail to extinguish a small fire burning with waist-high flames. The other firefighters were in the middle of the palm tree grove, chopping away at the fuel source to further contain the orange flames.
Gary Keller, a technician with the California Department of Fish and Game, wandered over from where he was working nearby to observe and comment on what was happening.
"It's another transient fire," he said. "We cleared this area out in '09, but they obviously came back to the same spot because it's so secluded and protected," he said.
A firefighter confirmed that the fire appeared to have been started by a transient who had then abandoned the site, leaving the fire to burn.
Transient encampments are not a new problem in the wetlands. Just a couple of weeks ago, I saw someone actually riding a bike from his camp across a protected area of the wetlands, cruising all the way up to the fence, then attempting to toss the bike over so that he could ride out the main trail. As I approached on my walk, the man quickly got back on his bike and rode back down through the restricted area, crushing protected plants as he cruised back down the hill.
Keller and I started talking, and he expressed his frustration at the fact that transients continue to camp in the area, the fact that there is not enough manpower to keep up what is happening, and also that DFG personnel are not even allowed to come in and sweep an area.
"We have to, by law, come in and post laminated signs on stakes giving people something like 10 days' warning that we're coming in to clear them out and their possessions," he said. "Not to be harsh, I understand there are people living through hard times, but these are simple matters of safety and the law, and I think if people saw what was recovered in these camps, the public would agree that we should be able to deal with this in a more timely manner than having to provide 10-day warnings."
I asked Keller to describe what the typical conditions were.
"It's usually pretty bad, what we find," he said. "A lot of garbage, porn, stolen goods, drug paraphernalia — at one camp recently, the team found a skinned rattlesnake nailed up on a tree with a cigarette sticking out of its mouth. There are also sanitary hazards, the killing of wildlife, and of course, fires like the one they're putting out right this minute.
"Then there's all the vandalism. To get into the protected areas sometimes, they cut the fence wires, but they know just how many threads to cut so that I end up replacing not just the wires, but entire pieces of fence."
A neighborhood of homes is a stone's throw from where we are standing at the bottom of the hill. There is so much dry brush that's it's easy to imagine a fire exploding on a dry summer morning and quickly licking its way up the incline. And would you want your kids playing outside within sight of a camp like this?
"Look how tough it is right now to get a hose down here just for this little fire," Keller said. "It's not very accessible, so if something major broke out, it would be very hard to contain and get emergency vehicles down here."
Keller's comments, in my view, represent a kind of metaphor for society — the chaos that comes from cutbacks. He told me that the state had 1,000 game wardens but now there were a few more than 300.
In addition to the encampments, Keller recounted his endless confrontations with bike riders and dog owners who refuse to leash their dogs.
"I've been laughed at, lied to, flipped off — every insulting reaction you can imagine," he said. "And the signs we put up, many times within 24 hours are torn out and thrown in the water."
But there are few people to do anything about the levels of lawbreaking that now seem to dictate the rhythms of the wetlands, simply because the area is protected and out of view. All of the work people did to protect this area seems a bit in vain now, as the land is illegally abused by crude, rude and lewd people from all walks of life.
But again, this is the chaos from cutbacks — it allows criminal behavior to go unchecked. It removes a protective layer of society that at one time was a given.
I hate what is happening down in the quieter, protected parts of this beautiful place. The leashless dog issues I documented here recently continue to spiral out of control thanks to the "entitled" goons who seem to relish life above the law ("In The Pipeline: Keep Spot, Fido and Marilyn safe — on a leash," Feb. 24). There's an older man I've seen a number of times, early in the morning, jogging with his dog toward Warner Avenue. It's a routine now — I start to say, "Are you aware of the law…," and he smiles and yells, "F--- you, nature lover!"
The other day, a friend told me of a breathless, terrified female jogger he met on the trail who had just been violently accosted by a group of young men who appeared to be transients down on one of the lower trails. She feared for her life. He suggested she stay off that part of the trail. But is that what it's coming to?
Apathy fuels arrogance, so I like to hope that people will get involved, make their opinions known and not be afraid to confront those in the wrong.
Otherwise, soon, many will look at the wetlands and beyond and wonder, as they observe rampant levels of social disorder and breakdown, "How did this happen"?
Meanwhile, a few of us will look at the same landscape and say, "What took so long?"
CHRIS EPTING is the author of 18 books, including the new "Hello, It's Me: Dispatches from a Pop Culture Junkie." You can write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.